Today marks the 45th anniversary of the death of Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson. In light of all that is happening in the sports world, I kindly urge all athletes, owners, sports fans, and even the President of the United States to read Jackie Robinson’s autobiography, I Never Had It Made. I believe this book is the most untapped resource in the history of professional sports. In fact, I feel so strongly about his autobiography, that I think it should be required summer reading for all Americans entering the 9th grade. It pains me to know that here we have a rich historical context that speaks directly to the issues that we are now facing in modern society in regards to racial tensions reflected in the sports arena, and yet we choose to ignore it.
As I have been thinking about the current state of pro sports and political protests, I cannot help but ask why we are neglecting the power of the past? When it comes to specifically talking about activism in the sports world, why are we ignoring the path that has already been paved and illuminated through the courage that came from one man braving the darkest perspectives and experiences of the 20th Century?
[Martin Luther] King defended Robinson’s right, challenged by some observers who saw him as a faded athlete perilously beyond his depth, to speak out on matters such as politics, segregation, and civil rights. “He has the right," King insisted stoutly, "because back in the days when integration wasn’t fashionable, he underwent the trauma and the humiliation and the loneliness which comes with being a pilgrim walking the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides. And that is why we honor him tonight."
Arnold Rampersad, Jackie Robinson: A Biography
Our terrifying past.
First let’s talk about lynching, because I think it is most important to focus on the severity of the historical trauma that we have already encountered and suffered through almost 100 years ago.
I found it devastating that lynching was something that Jackie Robinson could still feel the consequences of early in his own life, and it would prove to be a mental blood stain that was impossible to elude, no matter which barriers he managed to break. Arnold Rampersad mentions it in his biography of Jackie Robinson.
White hostility took even more violent forms. Between 1890-1902, when about 200 lynchings made Georgia the worst state in the Union in this respect, six took place in Thomas County. The years between 1909, [when Robinson’s parents were married] and 1918 saw more than 125 lynchings of blacks across the state, often for flimsy reasons and always unpunished.
In 1919, when whites lynched seventy-six blacks in the United States, Georgia preserved its record as the most violently antiblack state in the Union.
Between the Charleston riot and the epidemic of arson had come the ‘Red Summer’, which witnessed at least two dozen race riots across the country, most notably in Chicago, brought on by bitter postwar competition between whites and blacks seeking jobs and housing.
This makes one truly feel the genuine emotion of those terror acts, connected to modern day context because of the realization that these are not generations far removed from us. Understanding and examining these stories alone is enough to send ghoulish chills through your body, soul and spirit. It’s hard to imagine the anger, the pain and frustration—the sheer terror. It’s sickening and haunting what Africans-Americans were subject to in those times, and the crying shame still lingers and festers enough to make one weep a tear for the trouble that continues to haunt us today.
“Grandmas hold our tiny hands for just a little, but forever our hearts.”
Jackie Robinson was quick to recall a memory that stuck with him until the end of his life. His grandmother, who he always remembered vividly and fondly, but didn’t get to spend a long time with in his youth, once provided a rather somber sounding suggestion:
’I remember she told me once’, he said, ‘that when the slaves were freed they wanted no part of freedom. They were afraid of it.’
In this somberness, there is a twinge of victory hidden in her statements. In her lifetime she had successfully empowered herself enough to be removed from the thoughts of her peers, as she herself had been born into slavery, but found herself liberated from the mental constraints that slavery held onto many others. Their fear of freedom is what she specifically recognized, and consequently avoided when she taught her grandson, young Jack, this lesson that particular day.
In my opinion, the more interesting parts of Jackie Robinson’s life began after his career in sports ended. Here is where he was able to discover yet another dimension to his identity as an activist and political leader. His ability to achieve the highest honor through success in sports and still separate from his former life as a Major League Hall of Famer is why his legacy will be the diamond preserved in America’s sometimes troubled and tumultuous history. The stability that he endured proves the hope of what is good about this great nation to which we all belong as citizens.
A High and a Low
Speaking about the impact the March on Washington had on his life, he reaches the highest point of joy in his spirit.
“Instead of the fights and rioting that some predicted, the mood was one of self-confidence and shared humanity. ‘I have never been so proud to be a Negro, he wrote. ‘I have never been so proud to be an American.’ The sight of thousands of blacks and whites marching together for a common cause stirred him: ‘One had to be deeply moved as [one] stood, watching Negros and whites, marching hand in hand, singing songs of freedom,’ he wrote.”
Unfortunately, in the divided climate consisting of forces of good and evil, of love and hate, the joyous moment was short-lived.
A week later, on the morning of September 16, joy turned to horror and sorrow when a bomb thrown into the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killed four girls at Sunday school and wounded twenty other persons. Behind the bombing Jack saw the evil hands of Bull Connor and Governor George Wallace. “God bless Dr. Martin Luther King,” he mused bitterly in his column. But if his child had been one of those killed, “I’m afraid he would have lost me as a potential disciple of his credo of non-violence.
The fact that he was also a proud (and oftentimes not-so-proud) member of the Republican Party was the beginning of his controversial life post-retirement.
Jack’s view of the Republicans was complicated. The previous August, in the Saturday Evening Post, he had bared his central anxiety with a controversial article, “The G.O.P.: For White Men Only?” Robinson saw a “striking parallel” between the Black Muslims and Goldwater Republicans: “Both groups want to detour from the highway to racial integration. Both groups feel they can reach their goals by traveling the road of racial separation.” “The danger of the Republican Party being taken over by the lily-whiteist conservatives,” Jack had argued once in the Amsterdam News, “is more serious than many people realize.” That the Republicans had targeted the South with “Operation Dixie” was well known. But, he asked, “is operation Dixie calculated to corral Negro as well as white votes—and if not, why not?”
He most notably supported Nelson Rockefeller.
Outspoken against the opposition.
On cross-country trips to campaign for Rockefeller in primaries, Jack hit hard at Goldwater—harder in most ways than Rockefeller himself ever struck. In Portland, Oregon, Jack left little unsaid. “If we have a bigot running for the presidency of the United States,” he said, “it will set back the course of the country. Rockefeller must beat Goldwater in the primary.
He even urged Democrats in the audience to switch party affiliation temporarily in order to vote against Goldwater in the primary: “If you want to go back being a Democrat after the election that’s your privilege.” (In an upset, Rockefeller won in Oregon.) In May, as the featured speaker at a gala dinner at Concordia College in Minnesota, he spoke of the election in almost spiritual terms. “This is a struggle to redeem the soul of America,” Robinson insisted, as he warned of a possible race war resulting from the extremism of Birchers and Klansmen. “The Negro is not interested in avenging the past, but in enriching the future. How fatal it would be if we came face to face with each other in armed camps of white versus Negro."
His conflict in his search and fight for justice and truth continued.
Later in March, along with the writer James Baldwin and others, he testified before a congressional subcommittee in favor of a proposal by a New York commission on black American history. He also stepped up his efforts to affect the presidential election in the fall. Despite Vietnam, Johnson seemed likely to be renominated by the Democrats; among the Republicans, Nixon had inherited much of the old Goldwater support, and also seemed certain of nomination. Robinson, dismayed, continued to fret at the attitude of the Republican Party to blacks. Writing to Clarence Lee Towns Jr., the leading black on the Republican National Committee, he warned that blacks, who had made only six percent of the voters for Goldwater, would not vote Nixon: “I suspect that unless the party shows a desire to win our vote, it may rest assured that I and my friends cannot and will not support a conservative."
He bravely changed his actions, and then his attitude followed:
Ironically, Robinson and the Arizona senator now enjoyed a far more cordial relationship than in 1964. Attending a public banquet in Arizona, Robinson had listened in amazement as Goldwater voiced his outrage at examples of racial prejudice he had seen on a recent trip into the South. After the dinner, the two men met and chatted amicably. Later, Goldwater invited Robinson to join him at lunch in New York City. “This time, I accepted,” Jack told his Amsterdam News readers in 1964. “In person, the Senator is a charmer…I must confess that, although we still disagree sharply in some areas, my personal anti-Goldwater feelings have ebbed considerably."
"I have my right to remember that I am black and American before I am Republican. As such, I will never vote for Mr. Nixon."
Leader follows leader.
He was proud to follow Martin Luther King Jr. and was hardest hit by his assassination.
In his weekly column, he hailed the martyred minister as “the greatest leader of the Twentieth Century.”
He answered his toughest critics.
The harshest counterattack, came from William F. Buckley Jr., in an essay, “Robinson Strikes Out,” in the New York Post. “It is surely time,” Buckley argued, “to put an end to the mischievous national habit of taking seriously this pompous moralizer who whines his way through life as though all America were at Ebbets Field cheering him on against the big bad racist St. Louis Cardinals.” Robinson’s habit of describing himself as “first a black man, second an American, third a Republican” was itself racist. (And, indeed, Robinson once would not have ordered things in this way; but he understood now, in the wake of the social turbulence of the preceding years, that for most Americans his skin color was more defining of his identity than his citizenship ever could be.)
"If that is racism, so be it,” he responded in the Amsterdam News. “I am proud to be black. I am also embattled because I am black; but for white Americans of the Buckley ilk, I am only one of millions of blacks who are tired of it!"
On January 22, 1969, following Nixon’s inaugural address, Robinson sent him a formal letter that made only scant reference to Jack’s earlier support. Accepting the result, “we all pray that your years in Washington will be most successful.” Although blacks had not supported him, Nixon should set aside that fact and work for national unity. “For Mr. President, Black people cannot afford a racial conflict; White people cannot afford one. And it’s a fact that America cannot afford one. If we are to survive as a nation, we must do it together. Black people will work for one America if we are given hope. Without hope, the present feeling of despair will lead to worse problems."
Victorious at last, Nixon ignored this missive. He also ignored a group of about thirty black leaders, including Robinson and Floyd McKissick, who showed up at the White House gates soon after the inauguration to request a meeting with him; the group was kept waiting for about half an hour, then turned away. Nixon still admired Robinson the former Brooklyn Dodger, but he was no longer interested in, or had need for, Robinson as a political player.
Toni Morrison remembers his treatment towards women.
Determined to accurately and effectively document his life story, Robinson met in New York with a young black woman who had just been appointed a senior editor at Random House. This woman was Toni Morrison, and her eagerness to acquire good black authors and help Jackie Robinson tell his story brought them close together and created a strong bond between the two. She especially remembers the respect that he showed her.
One of the greatest measurements of the character of a man with power can be examined by the way he treats women. Jackie Robinson was in rare company when it came to this.
‘I already knew a great deal,’ [Morrison] said, ‘about the way many black men in that position often talked to black women who had a little power, which was to show the women that they really had none. Robinson was totally unlike that. He made no gestures to say, ‘I’m more important than you; you know you have to accommodate me because I am a man; aren’t you really a secretary?’ He played none of the usual gender games. He respected me, felt comfortable with me. In hindsight, he was one of the few black men I had business dealings with in those days with whom I didn’t have to watch myself all the time.'
Every man in our current society could learn a thing or two from this example set by Jackie Robinson.
Rejected by Random House
The most surprising finding I discovered when looking through his life was the fact that the publishing company Random House rejected his pitch for his autobiography. Toni Morrison recalls,
“He said that he wanted his book to be about more than baseball. He wanted it to be about the larger picture, about society and the times he had lived through. I knew what he meant, but I could also feel the interest ebbing from the room. The white men became cool, indifferent. They wanted something more exotic, something more voluptuous than he was prepared to offer. When he left, they complained that the book was going to be too political, too much social studies, it wouldn’t sell. They turned us down.”
To me, this shows how crazily Jackie Robinson faced obstacles at every single juncture in his life, and his endurance until the very end is nothing short of inspiring. More than that, the successful writing and publishing of his autobiography proves that his determination to persevere through life’s circumstances was infinite; his will was limitless, and the power of his faith was too strong to ever be denied.
He was as human as he was heroic, as fearless as he was flawed: an iconic American.
These are some of the lessons that you learn while reading through Jackie Robinson’s masterpiece of an autobiography, and especially when you revisit his life through the words of Arnold Rampersad, who authored Jackie Robinson: A Biography. What I’ve learned over the past year is that Jackie Robinson suffered so that we could all eventually realize our suffering doesn’t have to be in vain. Solutions are right in front of our eyes, yet we inadvertently push them aside and allow impatience to rush our selfish decisions and determinations. As Jackie Robinson has so patiently shown us through sharing his life experiences, this will ultimately lead us nowhere.
We gain so much power when we completely understand where and how far we have come, and what it took to get here.
Why are we doomed to repeat avoidable problems?
In my opinion, we shame the legacy and honor of Jackie Roosevelt Robinson when we ignore his story, which ultimately has become embedded in our nation’s history.
Next time you want to take an easy ride on the train of negativity and division in order to garner attention for yourself or the causes you support, I humbly suggest you first pick up a book—I Never Had It Made by Jackie Robinson is a start.
Empower yourself to understand something that extends beyond your scope of thought, and then be moved to action. I can guarantee that the respect and honor you will showcase after you have read his life story will lead you to positive decision-making, and real change will begin to manifest—first in your world, and then in the world around you.
Four time All-American, WNBA Champion, Edutainer and Coach